Having recently completed Rothbard’s “America’s Great Depression”, I couldn’t help draw the parallels between America’s roaring 20’s and China’s roaring economy today, and I couldn’t help conclude that China will inevitably fall in a depression just like America did during the 1930s.
The objective of this article is to present an Austrian argument as to why this must happen; to substantiate my arguments, I will be quoting Rothbard’s Fifth Edition where relevant.
Before proceeding any further, I would urge all readers who haven’t read Rothbard’s “America’s Great Depression”, to pick up a copy and read it. First, it is a real pleasant read, and Rothbard’s witty style of writing makes reading it fun. Second, the first part of the book develops the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, which is indispensable for understanding credit booms and their inevitable busts. Finally, the second part of the book elaborates the development and the causes of the Inflationary Boom of the 1920s and provides a basis for comparison with the economic policies of modern-day China.
In order to establish our parallel, we need some historical perspective of the relationship between a world superpower and a rising economic giant. In the 1920s, Great Britain was the superpower of the world, and the United States was the rising giant. As such, Great Britain ran its economic policies independently, and the U.S. adapted its own policies in a somewhat subordinated manner. Today, The United States is the hegemonic superpower of the world, and China is the rising economic giant. Not surprisingly, the U.S. runs its policy independently, while China adjusts its own accordingly.
Continuing our parallel analysis, during the 1920s the British Empire was already in decline, was militarily overextended, and in order to pay for its imperial adventures, resorted to debasing its own currency and running continuous foreign trade and budget deficits. In other words, Britain was savings-short, a net-debtor nation, and the rest of the world was financing her. Meanwhile, America was running trade surpluses and was a net creditor nation. Importantly from a historical point of view, the British Empire collapsed when the rest of the world pulled the plug on their credit and began capital repatriation. Today, the American Empire is in decline, is militarily overextended, and is financing her overextended empire with the “tried-and-true” methods of currency debasement and never-ending foreign trade and budget deficits. In other words, America is savings-starved, a net-debtor nation, and the rest of the world is financing her. At the same time, today China runs trade surpluses and is a net-creditor nation. When the rest of the world finally pulls the plug on American credit, will the American Empire also collapse?
The cause of the Depression, as Rothbard explains, was a credit expansion that fuelled the boom. According to Rothbard, “[o]ver the entire period of the boom, we find that the money supply increased by $28.0 billion, a 61.8 percent increase over the eight year period [of 1921-1929]. This was an average annual increase of 7.7 percent, a very sizable degree of inflation (p.93)…The entire monetary expansion took place in money substitutes, which are products of credit creation… The prime factor in generating the inflation of the 1920s was the increase in total bank reserves” (p.102). In other words, during the 1920s, the United States experienced an inflationary credit boom. This was most evident in the booming stock and the booming real estate markets. Furthermore, there was a “spectacular boom in foreign bonds… It was a direct reflection of American credit expansion, and particularly of the low interest rates generated by that expansion” (p.130). To stem the boom, the Fed attempted in vain to use moral suasion on the markets and restrain credit expansion only for “legitimate business. Importantly, consumer “prices generally remained stable and even fell slightly over the period” (p. 86). No doubt the stable consumer prices contributed to the overall sense of economic stability, and the majority of professional economists then did not realize that the economy was not fundamentally sound. To them the bust came as a surprise.
Today, in a similar fashion, the seeds of Depression are sown in China. Economists hail the growth of China, many not realizing that China is undergoing an inflationary credit boom that dwarfs that American one during the roaring ‘20s. According to official government statistics, 2002 Chinese GDP growth was 8%, and 2003 growth was 8.5%, and some analysts believe these numbers to be conservative. According to the People’s Bank of China own web site (http://www.pbc.gov.cn/english/baogaoyutongjishuju/), “Money & Quasi Money Supply” for 2001/01 was 11.89 trillion, for 2002/01 was 15.96 trillion, for 2003/01 was 19.05 trillion, and for 2004/01 was 22.51 trillion yuan. In other words, money supply for 2001, 2002, and 2003 grew respectively 34.2%, 19.3%, and 18.1%. Thus, during the last three years, money supply in China grew approximately three times faster than money supply in the U.S. during the 1920s.